Tracing infections through the city

Cape Town’s annual Infecting the City (ITC) festival, which ran from the 9th to 14th March, proved that art need not be about elite commodities bound within gallery walls. Inviting diverse audiences to engage with thought-provoking theatre, dance, poetry, and other art forms in the open air, ITC’s infiltration of urban space sought to raise important questions by tracing and challenging the hegemonic structures shaping South Africa. Besides attending parts of the festival myself, I spoke to attendee Thomas Dreyer, artist Lesiba Mabitsela, and ITC volunteer Kyla Hazel to get a range of insights into the power of public art.

For Thomas, an artist friend who attended the festival, “Prayer to the New Moon” by New Moon Collective was “breathtaking in its synthesis of sound, performance, fire, mythology, past, and present”. Conceptualised by Craig Leo and Charles Standing, this piece was inspired by the /Xam poem Prayer to the New Moon by Dia!kwain from The Stars Say ‘Tsau’, later adapted by Antjie Krog. That this piece took place in the fraught space of Jan van Riebeeck’s Castle of Good Hope subverts a very painful history; the /Xam (Southern African aborigines) were violently displaced by colonial settlers since the Dutch arrived in 1652.  By giving voice to an oppressed body within a hostile structure, this piece formed a part of the festival’s Programme A: Ways of Belonging, which used art to honour the human need to belong.


“Prayer to the New Moon” by New Moon Collective. Thomas Dreyer.

Forming part of Programme C: What we Deserve, Lesiba Mabitsela’s “The Man in the Green Blanket” sought to commemorate Mgcineni ‘Mambush’ Noki, who was among the 34 striking miners killed by police at the tragic Marikana Massacre at the Lonmin platinum mine in 2012. The drill-operator was a prominent leader in the strike and the green blanket he wore around his shoulders has become a symbol of the massacre. The piece had five individuals wearing green blankets (like the one Noki had worn on the day he was shot), walking through different locations around the CBD to make visible what certain people can afford not to look at, and to pay respect to lives unduly lost. The following images by Donovon Marais speak for themselves.

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“The Man in the Green Blanket” by Lesiba Mabitsela. Donovon Marais.

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“The Man in the Green Blanket” by Lesiba Mabitsela. Donovon Marais.

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“The Man in the Green Blanket” by Lesiba Mabitsela. Donovon Marais.

Tracing a similarly troubled thread, ITC volunteer Kyla Hazell, shared this echoing moment about her experience of Mari and Kana, a story of two families who lost both their beloveds and breadwinners to the massacre: “the sun has slipped behind Table Mountain and dusk is softening the central city as, near the roses in the Company’s Garden, a crowd sits silently watching the theatrical tragedy before them. The performers move between 34 white crosses on the manicured colonial lawns, depicting the social fallout of South Africa’s 2012 shame with artful grace. The audience is enraptured. Slowly, however, they start to notice a slight commotion coming from stage right. A middle aged man is making his way along the front row of the public art performance, bearing several crafted dragonflies in his hands and doing his utmost to interest the city spectators in what he has to sell them. Many in the audience glare disapprovingly: can this man not see they are very busy engaging with the socio-economic impact of state-sanctioned violence?”

That Cape Town is already infected — plagued by cloying institutional inequalities that divide its people across intersecting gradients of privilege —  means it is easy to be cynical about art for the public, which is simply an exclusive category. However, art is powerful in essence. Undefined at its edges, it transcends boundaries, and triggers emotion and thought in ways words cannot.  It was a few days after ITC that I encountered one of its eerie echoes: a man sleeping under a bridge, sheltered by his makeshift fort of recycled ITC posters. Here was proof, albeit on a much deeper level, that imagination and creativity are not simply elite indulgences, but critical for survival.

Yanna Romano is an editorial intern with UrbanAfrica.Net and a postgraduate researcher based in Cape Town, South Africa. Her photographs and words explore what is unresolved and alive in the spaces she enters  — the conflicting perspectives, the echoing questions, and the stories that thread them together.

Main image: “Prayer to the New Moon” by New Moon Collective. Thomas Dreyer.


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